Explore Utah Science - Explore Utah Science - Kim Schuske http://exploreutahscience.org Fri, 19 Jan 2018 14:28:22 -0700 en-gb Can Utah Develop Solutions to Clean Up the Air? http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/142-can-utah-develop-solutions-to-clean-up-the-air http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/142-can-utah-develop-solutions-to-clean-up-the-air Can Utah Develop Solutions to Clean Up the Air?

The public has made it's voice heard when it comes to air pollution in the state. Regulators and government officials say they are developing a Utah solution for air quality. This year, there are plenty of people ready to hold them accountable.

The public has made it's voice heard when it comes to air pollution in the state. Regulators and government officials say they are developing a Utah solution for air quality. This year, there are plenty of people ready to hold them accountable.

Around 5,000 men, women, children, and dogs, many wearing masks, rallied at the state capitol on Saturday. They sang songs and listened to community leaders rail against the political and regulatory barriers to cleaning up the air.

Randal Autrey came to the rally from Draper with three of his nine children. He moved to Utah from North Texas 17 years ago for a job in the computer software industry. He says his family has had to deal with multiple cases of pneumonia over the years and two of his kids have asthma that gets worse during inversions. Beyond the health consequences he also has seen how the bad air hurts his company's ability to hire new talent.

"I recruit a lot of technical people to come to Utah and occasionally you will hear that, that they have seen we have had bad air and so they're not real excited to come here," says Autrey. "A little bit like we used to view Los Angeles, like you didn't really want to live there, but if the opportunity is good enough you can still get people here, but it definitely dissuades people."

Last year there were 35 days where small particulate, PM 2.5, pollution reached an unhealthy level that required mandatory action from residents. This year we've already had more than 20 days in this category.

Recently, the Division of Air Quality passed a State Implementation Plan, or SIP, that regulates air pollution emissions within the state. Perhaps the most controversial parts of the plan are regulations on large industries, or point sources, such as oil refineries. DAQ director Bryce Bird says, when developing the regulations, they had to take into account the costs of emission control upgrades in order to make them economically feasible. Even so, he says the upgrades required in the plan are costly.

"Some of these are hundreds of millions of dollars for the refineries for instance," says Bird. "They have to really go in there and re-engineer and redesign their existing facilities to bring them up to the current standards that a new refinery would have to meet today."

Overall, large industries will be able to increase their emissions by 12% in 2019 compared to 2010. This is unacceptable to many clean air advocates and a recent poll by the Salt Lake Tribune shows that 67% of the public wants tighter controls on industry.

One such advocate is Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for Clean Air. His organization and others have filed lawsuits against Kennecott and the Holly and Tesoro refineries in order to stop expansions that were permitted by the DAQ. Moench believes the permits violate the Clean Air Act.

"I guess our source of frustration is you can look at two different issues and if your priority is to protect industry, you're going to come up with one conclusion," says Moench. "If your priority is to protect public health, you look at the same data and say 'no' we're going to come up with a different conclusion, which is you cannot expand."

Director Bird says the companies met requirements for air quality at the time they applied for the permits, and the DAQ had no choice but to give them the permits to expand.

The Kennecott lawsuit has already been heard by a judge and is awaiting a decision; there is no court date scheduled yet for the other lawsuits.

Matt Pacenza, policy director for HEAL Utah, agrees that regulation on large industrial polluters like refineries are not stringent enough and this will likely come back to haunt the state.

"Everyone involved agrees that we're not going to hit the deadlines that were supposed to hit by 2015," says Pacenza. "And when that happens there will be a level of rigor that will need to be applied to industry for example that we chose not to do this time around. It's essentially a system where the federal government continues to ratchet and apply greater pressure. And that's one of the many reasons why knowing that's coming, we have urged the state to be tough now." He adds, "Why wait those two or three or four extra years when you'll be forced to do it? Do it now because we're breathing this air every day."

Despite the controversy over industry, the DAQ estimates that the majority of emissions, 57%, come from vehicles. Most of the gains in the state plan are the result of federal regulations that are requiring cleaner fuels and vehicles to be sold over the next few years.

The plan predicts the state will just barely reach attainment by 2019, leading many to think that the SIP doesn't go far enough. This year, a bipartisan group of legislators wants to be part of the solution. Of at least 16 air quality bills being drafted, one of the most important may be an Air Quality Revisions bill sponsored by Representative Rebecca Edwards. Her bill would reverse a Utah law requiring that state regulations may not be more stringent those required by the EPA.

Kathy Van Dame is on the board of Breathe Utah and represents organized environmental interests on the air quality board. She says the current rule causes a lot of problems for developing a Utah solution to air pollution.

"One of the other things that is just absolutely insidious about the requirement is that it is a fearful thing. So that whenever somebody comes up with a new idea, the naysayer only has to say 'that's more stringent than the EPA,' and it falls off the table," explains Van Dame.

She adds, if Edward's bill passes, it would open up the possibility of bringing cleaner, low sulfur fuels to the state, sooner than required by federal law.

"If Utah would for instance, go early for very clean car standards and fuel similar to what they have in California, right now that's not something that's required by EPA and so that would not be something that the DAQ could do," says Van Dame. "If we could get lower sulfur fuel in our cars right now, we would get a 9% reduction in the PM2.5 and precursory emissions from our gasoline fleet that's on the road right now."

While she recognizes the limitations of the State Implementation Plan, she voted to support it.

"One of the things that really is very hopeful is that throughout this process many people have recognized that the SIP by itself isn't enough to accomplish what it is that needs to be accomplished to clean our air." She adds, "It's one element, it's one tool. We need to figure out the ways that we're willing to go forward."

It's just possible that through regulations, laws, lawsuits, or maybe all three, Utah may finally get cleaner air.

Unused filter (white), normal air day (grey), red air day (black)

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Science and Society Tue, 28 Jan 2014 12:19:16 -0700
Biology Inspires Next Generation "Bio-batteries" http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/141-biology-inspires-next-generation-bio-batteries http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/141-biology-inspires-next-generation-bio-batteries Biology Inspires Next Generation

Batteries that power our electronic devices contain heavy metals and other materials that are toxic to the environment. A new battery technology inspired by biology, bio-batteries, overcomes many of these problems. The technology may one day lead to biodegradable batteries that store energy more efficiently than today's heavy duty lithium-ion batteries.

Batteries that power our electronic devices contain heavy metals and other materials that are toxic to the environment. A new battery technology inspired by biology, bio-batteries, overcomes many of these problems. The technology may one day lead to biodegradable batteries that store energy more efficiently than today's heavy duty lithium-ion batteries.

Most electronic devices we use today like cell phones and computers use lithium-ion batteries for their power. These batteries can store a lot of energy, leading to longer use times before recharging than other battery types. But the metals and chemicals used in lithium ion batteries can be dangerous, says Shelley Minteer.

"Interestingly enough, if something makes a very high energy density battery, it often times has a very energetic material and can have sort of safety issues associated with that," explains Menteer, a professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering at the University of Utah. "And we see that with lithium ion. So you've seen the reports of people's laptops catching on fire, you know issues with cars, etc."

To keep these batteries safe means they have to be packaged very carefully and other safety mechanisms such as a temperature sensor have to be included so they don't overheat.

"Because lithium is sort of dangerous chemistry, the protective container takes up a certain amount of space. We are basically hitting the limit taking into account that we have to have the protective cases," says Minteer.

As electronics continue to advance, they need higher battery capacities. Safety concerns and other technological considerations mean that it may not be long before lithium ion batteries can no longer keep up. This has lead to an explosion of research into the development of whole new types of batteries.

"It used to be that we were ok with a cell phone that we used sporadically and now we need our cell phone to take videos, to take pictures, to have a color screen and all of these things require energy," says Minteer. "We have had to sort of change how we think about designing batteries to be able to design them for the applications that people want to use them for today."

Minteer is on the forefront of battery technology. Her lab is developing biodegradable batteries that contain no toxic metals or chemicals.

"We are making batteries that are for all intents and purpose edible. Not that we eat them, but they are edible."

She says her batteries are inspired by biology since every day we consume food, and cells in our bodies convert that food into energy.

"The power house of the living cell, or the energy conversion component of the living cell happens in the mitochondria," says Minteer. "So we either remove the mitochondria intact [from yeast, spinach, or potatoes] and put it on an electrode surface. Or we remove the part of the mitochondria, the actual enzymes or catalysts in the mitochondria that do energy conversion from the cell and put them on the electrode surface," she explains.

The fuel for this type of battery is not a dangerous chemical, but instead can be the same kinds of things that we ingest, like sugar or alcohol. The mitochondria or enzymes convert the fuel into electrical energy.

"We have technology that we know is extremely efficient in the living cell, and if we can get that kind of efficiency we would have energy densities that are over an order of magnitude or roughly 20 times as energy dense as lithium ion batteries," says Minteer. "But we haven't yet got that complete efficiency you that see in the living cell, so we are working on how we can improve that."

Currently, bio-batteries are able to generate high enough current densities to power many portable electronic devices.

"You're typically talking about lifetimes that are on the days to weeks range for mitochondria, so relatively short," says Minteer. "On the other hand with enzymes it really depends on what we do to protect the enzymes. If we protect the enzymes from degradation we can get months to years worth of life out of the enzyme, similar lifetimes to what you would get out of a lot of your traditional battery technologies."

The benefits of bio-batteries are obvious in terms of disposal. It's estimated that Americans throw away 358 million pounds of batteries ever year, dispersing toxic materials into our air, water, and soil. But there are also specific applications that could be more suitable for a bio-battery. Imagine a pacemaker that runs on a battery that uses the sugar in a person's blood stream. Or since the batteries can be made flexible, they could be used in wearable electronics.

Minteer says some applications will take longer to develop than others, but expects to see simple applications come out within a couple of years.

"Some applications, like using biodegradable batteries in a greeting card, doesn't require a lot of engineering," says Minteer. "If instead you look at the battery that is in your cell phone, the battery in your cell phone is a smart device. Any type of smart battery that requires a great deal of power management is longer down the engineering scale than something that can just use the energy as it comes directly out of the battery."

So the next time you open a greeting card, it's just possible that you might be using a bio-battery.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Technology Thu, 09 Jan 2014 14:22:29 -0700
Sounds of the West http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/137-sounds-of-the-west http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/137-sounds-of-the-west Angels Landing, Zion National Park

Thousands of animal and ambient sounds from eleven western states have been recorded and archived in a digital library in Utah. While fascinating in their own right, sounds can also be used to track environmental change.

Thousands of animal and ambient sounds from eleven western states have been recorded and archived in a digital library in Utah. While fascinating in their own right, sounds can also be used to track environmental change.

Some people like to hunt animals, not to kill them, but to record the sounds they make.

Conservationists, scientists, volunteers, and state and federal agency employees have contributed over 2600 animal sounds that are now housed at the biggest library of its kind in the west, called the Western Soundscape Archive. The project was founded by recording engineer Jeff Rice and digital librarian Kenning Arlitsch in order to document the sounds of animals living in the west and to make people aware so they will want to protect the environments where these animals live.

The digital sound archive is kept at the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library. Anna Neatrour was a project manager for a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, awarded to Rice and Arlitsch, to develop the archive.

"The Western Soundscape Archive is a site that collects animal sounds centered on eleven states in the American West," says Neatrour. "And it provides a really good overview of all the species that live in our states as well as ambient sounds for National Parks. Quite a variety of sounds that people can listen to from their computers."

While the project no longer has funds to collect and annotate new sounds, Neatrour says archiving animal sounds is important because when people think about environmental issues and declining landscapes, they usually think about the visual aspects.

"The sounds associated with these natural landscapes change as well. So preserving that now for the future is very useful," she adds.

But recording the sounds is not always easy. Many animals are active early in the morning and can be in hard to reach locations. Different microphones are needed for different jobs. By using a parabolic microphone it's possible to pick up weak sounds from a few meters away, while a small remote microphone can be dropped into burrows in the ground, or holes in trees. Some sound enthusiasts go even further.

"If you search the archive for 'ant interview,' you can hear a story of a scientist describe how he recorded the vibrations that ants make by holding them between his teeth," says Neatrour. "It shows how devoted people are for capturing these sounds.

[Interview with Dr. Hayward Spangler]

The recordings include over 500 bird species, 300 mammals, dozens of snakes, turtles, lizards, and frogs, as well as multiple insects. Many of the recordings are paired with predicted species distribution maps and pictures of the animals, which can be found by common or scientific name.

"We have some sounds from animals that you think would not make sounds, like earth worms for example," explains Neatrour. "And in that case the sound for that sound clip, it's more like the dirt falling as the earthworm moves through the ground."

[Earthworm sounds]

The individual animal sounds are important, but so are collections of sounds from particular landscapes. These collections, or soundscapes, include sounds of animals, geophysical features such as wind and streams, and human-produced sounds collected over the course of a day from different locations in the natural world.

[Ironwood Forest National Monument at dawn]

Soundscapes are frequently represented visually as spectrograms. The images of daily acoustic patterns can be used to better understand the area's biodiversity and health. Donated by the National Park Service, there are over 10,000 spectral images from 24 National Parks in the Western Soundscape Archive.

[Spectrograms from Zion National Park]

"You can actually look at these sound wave graphs and pinpoint things like airplane flights going overhead and disrupting the landscape versus variations in the ambient noise you might get in the different season," says Neatrour. "So that is something that can appeal more if people are doing research in that area."

Scientists are realizing that the auditory environment is as important as the visual landscape in understanding the health of an ecosystem. And the National Park Service is actively searching for ways to better protect the natural environment from the impact of human sounds, since studies suggest the acoustical environment is important for animals to find mates, protect their young, and to communicate about territories.

So the next time you are out in nature, remember to listen as well as look.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Life Thu, 05 Dec 2013 14:31:01 -0700
Antibiotic Resistance, A Looming Public Health Threat http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/health/item/136-antibiotic-resistance-a-looming-public-health-threat http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/health/item/136-antibiotic-resistance-a-looming-public-health-threat Antibiotic Resistance, A Looming Public Health Threat

Antibiotics are our main line of defense against bacteria that can make us very sick. But that defense is breaking down as the microorganisms are increasingly becoming resistant to our most effective drugs. How we deal with this threat may determine if we will become at risk of dying from infectious diseases that have been held in check for nearly a century.

Antibiotics are our main line of defense against bacteria that can make us very sick. But that defense is breaking down as the microorganisms are increasingly becoming resistant to our most effective drugs. How we deal with this threat may determine if we will become at risk of dying from infectious diseases that have been held in check for nearly a century.

Matt Mulvey is a researcher at the University of Utah who studies bacteria and is trying to understand how they cause disease and become resistant to antibiotics.

"It's rare that we know of someone in the United States who dies of an infectious disease," says Mulvey. "This used to not be the case. One hundred years ago infectious diseases used to be the primary cause of death."

The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that every year around 2 million people acquire antibiotic-resistant infections and 23,000 die from these infections.

"It does scare me actually, it does scare me more and more," says Mulvey. "One of my daughters and my wife recently had pneumonia and the first thing that goes through my mind is, 'Geez I hope this is susceptible to antibiotics.'"

Luckily they were diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia that was easily treated with the appropriate antibiotics. But, his fears are justified.

"My older brother had pneumonia about 2 or 3 years ago and he ended up dying within about seven days of receiving this, despite antibiotic treatments."

Mulvey says bacterial strains, resistant to certain antibiotics, have been on the rise over the last few decades and new drugs are not being developed to combat these now-resistant bugs. The concern is that without effective antibiotics, cancer treatments, major surgeries, and even a small cut could become dangerous.

"We don't want to see infectious diseases rise up again in this country or anywhere else," says Mulvey. "And I think we need to work hard to prevent that from happening."

Penicillin was the first antibiotic developed and was in widespread use by 1943, but the first resistant strains were identified three years earlier in 1940. Mulvey says that's the problem with bacteria, they divide rapidly giving them an evolutionary advantage against drugs.

"Bacteria acquire genes that allow them to circumvent or prevent antibiotics from coming into the bacteria cells," explains Mulvey. "Or if these antibiotics do come in, the bacteria can pump them out or otherwise inactivate the antibiotics. So this is natural selection at work, this is evolution."

When we take an antibiotic, it wipes out bacteria in our body that are sensitive to it, even the good bacteria. This means that the random resistant bacteria floating in our system will survive and now be able to thrive because it's growth is not kept in check by all of the other bacteria it was competing with for resources. Frequent antibiotic use can increase the risk of eventually developing a resistant infection.

"You can in an individual select for antibiotic-resistant microbes," says Mulvey. "So this is why physicians should be very careful about prescribing antibiotics unnecessarily." He adds, "An individual also needs to be very careful about harping on their physicians hoping to get antibiotics out of them because they feel sick. Antibiotics are only going to work against the right bacteria and they are useless against viruses."

Mulvey says his lab and others are doing basic research to figure out new ways to attack bacteria. They are identifying those genes and gene products that bacteria need to cause disease. Some of these factors may become targets that they could theoretically develop drugs against.

"The ideal drug would be one that kills only the pathogen, leaving our commensal bacteria, the good guys that live inside our intestinal tract, and on our skin and in our mouth. These are important to our health," says Mulvey. "If we could target the pathogens while leaving the good guys alone, that would be wonderful. Most antibiotics we have now days don't do that. They are scorched earth policy, they destroy everything they come in contact with."

Only one antibiotic has been developed and approved for use since 2010, and few new antibiotics are in the pipeline. Bacterial resistance is becoming a public health threat that even congress is starting to recognize. Last year, there was a provision in the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act that provided some incentives for developing new antibacterial drugs. But, these are just small steps. Currently the U.S. doesn't even have a comprehensive system to track resistant infections that occur in the country.

Utah Representative Jim Matheson thinks we need to get a better handle on the scope of the problem. He introduced a bill in June called the STAAR Act, for Strategies to Address Antimicrobial Resistance. The goals of the act are to support the combined efforts of scientists, health practitioners, and governing bodies in tracking resistant bacteria, limiting antibiotic use, and coming up with new approaches to address the impending problem.

"Lets help define the problem, because right now there's all sorts of data points out there across the country and nobody is coordinating them," says Matheson. "And we really need a coordinated, cooperative effort across the country to define the problem. And I think if we better define the problem, that's going to lay the groundwork for how to best set up incentives to get that next generation of antibiotics developed."

But, we better move fast, because there are recent reports of bacterial strains that are resistant to all antibiotics we have in our arsenal.

"It was taken from, of all places, an estuary in the ocean off the coast of North Carolina in very polluted waters," says Mulvey, describing a recently identified bacterial strain. "And it's resistant to every known antibiotic on the planet, and not only that, it's resistant at record levels of these antibiotics."

While it's not known if this specific bacteria cause disease, individuals infected by gram negative bacteria that are resistant to all available antibiotics have been showing up around the world, including in the US.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Health Tue, 26 Nov 2013 12:53:05 -0700
Will Depleted Uranium Be Coming to Utah? http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/135-will-depleted-uranium-be-coming-to-utah http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/135-will-depleted-uranium-be-coming-to-utah Yellowcake uranium

The US has a lot of depleted uranium that needs to be stored and EnergySolutions wants to get in on the action. Over the next few months, the Division of Radiation Control will be looking at a study on the safety of storing the low level radioactive waste, which may ultimately determine if depleted uranium comes to Utah.

The US has a lot of depleted uranium that needs to be stored and EnergySolutions wants to get in on the action. Over the next few months, the Division of Radiation Control will be looking at a study on the safety of storing the low level radioactive waste, which may ultimately determine if depleted uranium comes to Utah.

The US has 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium that needs to find a permanent resting place. The waste was generated as a byproduct during uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons and to produce the fuel used in nuclear power plants. EnergySolutions, the low-level radioactive storage facility in Clive, 65 miles west of Salt Lake City, may become one home for the waste, pending a decision from the state. But it's not an easy decision to make because depleted uranium is unlike other radioactive material stored in Clive, says Rusty Lundberg who is the Director of the Division of Radiation Control, which will oversee the decision making process.

"It has some unique characteristics that differs from other radioactive materials and wastes that they dispose of there," says Lundberg. "One of the most significant is that over a long period of time, depleted uranium and its decay products actually increase in radioactivity. Whereas the more normal process is that radioactive materials decay and continue to decay. So this makes this more unique and more important for our deliberate and more focused consideration and evaluation of this proposal."

Depleted uranium is only 60% as radioactive as natural uranium, but as it decays the byproducts are more radioactive and are also toxic in other ways. Thure Cerling is a professor of geology at the University of Utah.

"By itself, the depleted uranium is more dangerous as a toxin, than its radioactivity," says Cerling.

A large increase in radioactivity due to decay will not occur for a long time, peaking at 2.1 million years.

"Uranium, when it was taken out of the ground, may have been there for millions of years, so we know it can be in a configuration for millions of years," says Cerling. "And millions of years is the time scale that it will continue to be around."

To get a better handle on the health and safety risk that storage of the waste may pose to Utahns, the Utah Division of Radiation Control required EnergySolutions to complete a study, or performance assessment, that looks at many possible issues and scenarios that might threaten waste containment at their facility over the next 10,000 and more years. This includes the risk of ground water contamination, seismic activity, and the role plants, insects, and burrowing animals may have in compromising the waste containment structure. The embankment that EnergySolutions proposes to use to contain the waste is above ground. Current regulations only require that the embankment perform its function for a minimum of 500 years.

Utah is somewhat on it's own in figuring out how to regulate storage of depleted uranium since the federal Nuclear Regulatory Agency has not put forward clear rules. Director Lundberg says state and federal regulators are all coming to the conclusion that a site-specific evaluation, like the one EnergySolutions has undertaken, will be critical.

"The intent is that, to look at each individual site taking into consideration its unique physical and location characteristics, not only now, but in the long term, and make that judgment, based upon that input and that information is it acceptable for disposal," explains Lundberg.

None of this comforts Park City resident Travis Bray.

"Any person who studies any aspect of storage knows there is no such thing as 100,000 year concrete, it doesn't exist, at some point storage facilities will break down," says Bray.

Bray went to an open house last week hosted by the Division of Radiation Control, which is hoping to engage the public on the storage issue. Bray says he came to the open house because after just moving to the state in September, he recently found out there was a possibility that depleted uranium would be stored in his new home. He isn't just a concerned citizen, but one with a PhD in chemistry from Auburn University. He studied how radioactive heavy metals, called actinides, could affect the environment around the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.

"I did four years of research modeling what's going to happen when Yucca broke down, what minerals will uptake actinides, the redox chemistry of these actinides in the environment, how are they going to move through," says Bray. "I mean, it's not a matter of if it's a matter of when," he adds.

Bray says he hopes people will still be living in the area thousands of years in the future and they will want to know what we did that might have compromised their environment.

Chris Sloan is a realtor in Tooele who also came to the open house. He supports EnergySolutions' plan and says the company is an important economic engine for the county.

"They support our youth, they support our business community. They employ a ton of our people, people that live and work in Toole County," says Sloan.

Sloan says he personally isn't worried about the long-term affects of storing depleted uranium near his community.

"If I'm going to live to be 61,050, then I may have some concerns," says Sloan. "Let me couch that by also saying that I'm also fairly certain that before it gets back to full strength, technology will also be evolving from the storage side. I have no problems sleeping at night knowing that the technology will advance over the time they are worried about the increased heat."

The Division of Radiation Control is expected to begin a technical analysis of the performance assessment soon, take public comments in July, and make a final decision at the end of next year.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Energy Thu, 21 Nov 2013 15:02:34 -0700
Our Water, Our Future http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/133-our-water-our-future http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/133-our-water-our-future Our Water, Our Future

A team of advisors is tasked with coming up with a 50-year water strategy for Utah that will include reducing consumption by 25% by 2025.

Utah is the second driest state in the country and we use about 40% more water per person than neighboring states such as Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. With the climate changing and the population growing, water will not stretch as far in the future as it has in the past. To tackle this issue, Governor Herbert has asked a team of advisors to come up with a 50-year water strategy for the state that will include reducing consumption by 25% by 2025.

870 billion gallons of water are consumed in Utah each year for watering crops and lawns, to drink, cook and bathe. For now, Utah has enough water to satiate consumers and maintain plants and animals that rely on streams, lakes, and watersheds. But with an expected increase in temperature and a population set to double by 2060, the future of the state's water is uncertain.

"I think we all recognize that water is going to be one of the key issues for us going forward," says Alan Matheson, State Planning Coordinator and Environmental Policy Advisor to Governor Herbert. "As our population grows and as projections of water availability change, those states that are prepared and thinking ahead about water are going to succeed and those that don't are going to fail."

Governor Herbert has taken steps to make sure that Utah is one of the states that will be prepared. He has tasked a group of 38 people to come up with a water strategy for the state. They come from different backgrounds including water management, politics, conservation, agriculture, industry, academia, and there's one representative for Native Americans.

"As we looked at putting that team together, we recognized that there are hundreds of people in the state that certainly could participate and contribute meaningfully," Matheson continues. "We just had to get to a number that would be workable, we could manage and actually get something done."

Matheson says the group will gather information, reach out to the public, and explore a range of policy options. At the end of the year they will develop a set of recommendations for what the state strategy should look like.

Getting there won't be easy. The Governor's team took a listening tour across the state over the Summer, visiting eight different locations and giving people a chance to voice their water concerns and priorities in person and on-line. They received 800 comments that illustrate the conflicting opinions around the state about how water should be managed in the future.

Here are a few from the Salt Lake City meeting:

"Conservation should be the primary solution to our growing water needs rather than resorting to major water projects."

"We need every drop of the Colorado River Basin water for drinking and for food production. There is no good reason to fund an oil shale development, where the world is already awash in oil."

"Conservation with reuse and recycling alone cannot meet the needs of our doubling population, substantial water supplies need to be developed."

"So why does Utah specifically use so much water? One of the reasons is that Utahns don't in fact pay for water directly. Instead water in Utah is subsidized or paid for in property taxes."

"Two things, I want to see water in our streams, sufficient water to support a healthy aquatic environment. And I want access to those streams wherever they are so ordinary citizens like me can enjoy recreation on them."

"Kentucky Bluegrass probably belongs in Kentucky."

"Utah farmers and ranchers are producing just over 1.3 billion dollars each year in farm sales, contributing 15 billion dollars in Utah economic activity."

Steve Erickson, a conservationist with the Great Basin Water Network and a member of the water advisory team, knows their job won't be easy. "It's going to be testy and contentious I'm sure. Hopefully we can all cooperate and try to arrive at some compromises that will be required," he says. "There likely will be some folks who want to draw lines in the sand and that remains to be seen how that will play out. The issues of water are always difficult, there's not going to be a simple answer to any of this."

Erickson says he personally is trying to set aside some of his biases in order to work towards a compromise. He sees his role as a liaison for others in the conservation community so their concerns get addressed and their suggestions get reviewed. "We're going to have to determine a means to protect the environment, to value water in place for the environment itself. Currently under the way the western water law is structured, the environment doesn't have a water right," Erickson says.

Water rights are allocated based on providing a beneficial use and under current law, leaving water in place to benefit the environment is not one of those uses. If the laws were changed to legally provide rights for the environment that could leave fewer rights for other applications, such as agriculture, which currently uses 80% of the water in Utah. This is just one of many contentious issues that the team will have to navigate.

Water conservation, the likely need for developing new water projects, and changing how water is priced, will all be part of the discussion, says Matheson. "We really have a stewardship duty to those that follow, to make sure we're not breaking the bank in committing ourselves to significant infrastructure projects, and we're not drying up our streams. And that's a tough balance, but it's something we simply have to do."

Water is just one of many issues facing the state. Others include air quality, transportation, energy, and jobs. Matheson says all of these issues are part of an umbrella process called 'Your Utah. Your Future.". Each issue will be studied individually and collectively with the difficult goal of maintaining Utah's economic health while also preserving a high quality of life for people in the state.

In the coming year, Explore Utah Science will be producing a five-part series on research efforts dedicated to maintaining and improving water sustainability in Utah. The series is made possible with support from iUTAH, a National Science Foundation-funded statewide research consortium.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Science and Society Thu, 07 Nov 2013 12:18:10 -0700
Curing Blindness One Eye at a Time http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/health/item/132-curing-blindness-one-eye-at-a-time http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/health/item/132-curing-blindness-one-eye-at-a-time Curing Blindness One Eye at a Time

The cost of removing a cataract - between $2,000-$4000 dollars - is prohibitive for many, leaving them to struggle with a completely curable form of blindness. The Moran Eye Center has started a Charitable Surgery Day, to help restore sight to some Utahns.

The cost of removing a cataract - between $2,000-$4000 dollars - is prohibitive for many, leaving them to struggle with a completely curable form of blindness. The Moran Eye Center has started a Charitable Surgery Day, to help restore sight to some Utahns.

According to the World Health Organization, in 2010, there were 20 million people who had become blind because of cataracts; that's half of the world's blind population.

Jeff Pettey, an Ophthalmologist at the University of Utah Moran Eye Center, says that many kinds of blindness, including that caused by cataracts, can be fixed. "Eighty percent of blindness in the world is either curable or preventable", he says. "And ninety percent of the blindness is in developing nations, but we have a lot here, I mean among us. This is a place where there's no reason anyone should be walking around with preventable or curable blindness."

But they are. Barbara Simons' vision has been impaired by cataracts for around 7 or 8 years.

"It's hard to see and read and I haven't driven a car for a while, and I trip a lot," say Simons.

Barbara doesn't have insurance nor the money to pay for cataract surgery on her own. Until recently, she was homeless. She receives health and eye care at the Fourth Street Clinic in downtown Salt Lake City.

"What we do with people whose care goes beyond the primary care setting is we will do case management around finding specialty care for patients," explains Kathy Chambers, CEO of the clinic. "That's a tricky thing, case management is always difficult because you're never sure if you can find it. But we do our best to try to match up the medical needs with people in the community and agencies within the community that are willing to participate in that."

That's how Barbara found herself at the Moran Eye Center last weekend, waiting with 18 other patients for cataract surgery provided by volunteers. There were dozens of volunteers from surgeons and anesthesiologists, to nurses and admitting staff that took part in what the center calls Charitable Surgery Day. Pettey started Surgery Day two years ago with a fourth year medical student after they realized how many people at the Fourth Street Clinic, and other clinics where they volunteer, needed help.

"We just had a big backlog of patients we were seeing who needed surgery," says Pettey. "They either had low vision or were blind and all they needed was surgery. But we were just having trouble figuring out a way to give everyone the care they needed."

Cataracts form in the lens of the eye and can lead to total blindness. "When we're born, the lens inside of our eye is crystal clear," explains Pettey. "And as we age, the lens becomes progressively cloudier. Each year it will become cloudier and cloudier. In it's most advanced form a cataract will completely block light entering the eye. So someone won't be able to see you moving your hand in front of their face."

The lens is an incredible work of nature. The organization of cells and crystallin proteins within the cells of the lens are critical for the transparency of the tissue. When this structure becomes disorganized, the lens becomes opaque and can no longer efficiently transmit and focus light on the retina.

"As we age with sun damage and other things, diabetes can also accelerate cataracts, ...the protein structure inside can change," says Pettey. "So as more and more proteins are created and connections are disrupted, you have a crystal structure that breaks down and no longer transmits light clearly."

Surgery is the only remedy for cataracts. Pettey says advances in the procedure have made it quick and painless because they only make two small incisions in the eye.

"Through the 2mm incision we'll enter in, we'll take the roof off of the lens, and then enter into the lens with an ultrasound machine that breaks up the lens, which at this point is fairly dense and hard," says Pettey. "The ultrasound breaks it up and there's also an aspiration pore, which will vacuum what you've broken up."

Before the lens is broken up, it is about the size of an M&M. After removal, they put in an artificial lens made out of acrylic or sometimes a plexiglass type material.

"We'll essentially put their glasses prescription in a lens inside of their eye and then we vacuum out anything we've left behind," says Petty. "At this point the incisions are so small there's no sutures at all. The wounds will seal on their own and the patient goes home the same day."

Once the affected lens has been removed and replaced, the patient will never get a cataract in the same eye again.

Old age is the primary risk factor for cataracts, but smoking, diabetes, UV radiation, and certain medications such as corticosteroids also increase the risk of developing cataracts.

It's rare for young people to get them, but 22-year-old Jose Alamos has had them in both eyes, which in the past has impaired his ability to get a job. He already had surgery on one eye, and was at Surgery Day to remove his second cataract. He says vision comes back fast, even overnight.

"It was awesome being able to see," says Alamos. "Actually being able to reach far away and see everything and see the clear faces on people now. It was great."

Pettey says for him, there's nothing better than seeing the look on a patient's face after taking the bandage off the next day.

"In the case of some of these advanced cataracts today, we're taking someone who can't read anything. Someone who hasn't seen the face of her grandchild for two years and at the end of the day she'll be able to read, she'll be able to see her grandkid's face. There's nothing I think I've ever done or could do that could give me that sort of reward."

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Health Mon, 14 Oct 2013 11:01:34 -0600
Is Nuclear Power in Utah’s Future? http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/131-is-nuclear-power-in-utah-s-future http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/131-is-nuclear-power-in-utah-s-future Is Nuclear Power in Utah’s Future?

Fears have prevented the construction of nuclear power plants for over 40 years, but Blue Castle Holdings is proposing to build a new one near Green River, Utah. The feasibility of the plant as well as water rights granted to the company were on trial last week.

Fears have prevented the construction of nuclear power plants for over 40 years, but Blue Castle Holdings is proposing to build a new one near Green River, Utah. The feasibility of the plant as well as water rights granted to the company were on trial last week.

Update (11/28/13): Utah Judge George Harmond ruled in favor of Blue Castle and approved water rights allocated from the Green River for use in a future nuclear power plant.

In 1953, General Electric released a promotional animated movie called A is for Atom. It explained nuclear fission to the public.

"What would happen, they [scientists] wondered, if they fired a neutron at a Uranium nucleus, already the heaviest in nature? Why not try? So they tried. And the result...nuclear fission. Instead of a minor change, the atom split in two. Truly a discovery to change the world."

It also extolled the virtues of nuclear power.

"The future supplying of electric power to entire cities is far from impossible. While nuclear power in locomotives, submarines, ships, and even very large airplanes may all but revolutionize future transportation on land, sea, and air."

The first commercial nuclear power plant went on-line in the US in 1958, there are now 65 throughout the country. But over the decades, accidents, including the one at Three Mile Island in 1979 and more recently Fukushima in 2011, have caused a backlash against nuclear power. Compounding the problem is the cost of building a new plant, which runs in the billions of dollars, and the difficulty of storing radioactive waste. These obstacles have prevented the construction of new plants in the US for more than 40 years.

Blue Castle Holdings wants to change that. Aaron Tilton, President and CEO of the company, says they are developing plans to build a plant near Green River, Utah, about 65 miles South of Price. He says the location is much safer than others like Fukushima.

"So what we've done is we looked over the Western United States for the development of our project early on," says Tilton. "We've selected a site that has what we consider the lowest potential for any of these natural disasters. There's no potential for wildfires there, there's no significant potential for earthquakes, it's outside of flood plains."

Tilton says there are number of reasons why Utah needs nuclear power. It's estimated the plant would be able to supply about 1 million homes with electricity. Nuclear energy produces less emissions than coal or even natural gas, which make up 96% of Utah's current energy sources. He also says it's important for a state to have a diverse energy portfolio.

"You need fuel diversification in order not to be subject to just these kinds of things, natural disasters or other things that might shut off one or multiple supplies of electricity."

The low emissions, including carbon dioxide, associated with nuclear energy have won over some who are worried about global warming and bad air. But not Matt Pacenza, Policy Director for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah).

"Even if seismic activity itself may not be a core issue along the Green River, what we have certainly learned from the Japan experience is that anything that can disrupt power to a plant, can disrupt the flow of water to a plant, can have serious consequences," says Pacenza.

The first hurdle for Blue Castle was cleared last year, when the Utah State Engineer, Kent Jones, granted 53,000 acre feet to the plant. That's enough to supply up to 100,000 homes with water for a year. The water right had previously been issued to a coal plant, but that plant was never built, and the right was transferred to Blue Castle.

The development has caused concern among environmental groups including HEAL Utah. They fear that the Colorado River has already been over allocated. What's more, there is concern a nuclear power plant would take priority over other water rights because water must be used to keep the plant cool, even during a drought. They have sued Blue Castle, and the case was heard in court last week. Pacenza says while water, radioactive waste, and the inherent danger of nuclear power are all important, the defining issue is cost.

"People should be concerned about risks and they should think carefully about what could happen here or anywhere that you have nuclear power plants," says Pacenza. "But at the end of the day what has ultimately doomed nuclear power is that the dollars and cents just don't add up."

The financial well-being of the Blue Castle plant was also on trial last week since viability of the project is an important factor for receiving water rights. So far, the company has raised just $17 million towards the expected $100 million dollar cost to get a license. In total, the project is expected to cost around $17 billion dollars and will require buy in from existing energy companies, none of which have publically expressed an interest in the project.

A ruling is expected within 60 days.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Energy Mon, 30 Sep 2013 06:35:36 -0600
Is Sugar Toxic? Equivalent to Three Sodas per Day Kills Mice http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/health/item/127-the-equivalent-of-three-sodas-per-day-kills-mice-research-shows http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/health/item/127-the-equivalent-of-three-sodas-per-day-kills-mice-research-shows Is Sugar Toxic? Equivalent to Three Sodas per Day Kills Mice

A new study from the University of Utah finds mice that consume ‘safe’ levels of sugar are more likely to die and have fewer offspring.

A new study from the University of Utah finds mice that consume 'safe' levels of sugar are more likely to die and have fewer offspring.

The increasing prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome are creating a health epidemic in the U.S. and many think sugar is at least partially to blame. Research conducted at the University of Utah supports the idea that a high-sugar diet is unhealthy, and in the case of mice, deadly.

"We observed that females that were on the added sugar diet had twice the death rate, had twice the mortality than females that were on the control diet," says lead author Wayne Potts, professor in the Department of Biology. "Males did not have a mortality effect, but males on the added sugar diet had 25% fewer offspring than controls and dominated 25% fewer territories than control males."

Their research differs from previous studies, where animals were fed sugar in very high doses, more than anyone eats in the real world. "People have been working on it a lot, but the primary studies just add fructose to the diet of animals. And to make it easy to see an effect, they add very large quantities of fructose, so that 40, 50, 60 percent of their diet is in fructose. And they get an effect."

To look at a more realistic scenario, he and researcher James Ruff examined the effects on mice of a diet composed of only 25% added sugar. The 50-50 mix of fructose and glucose are the same sugar components in high fructose corn syrup. They found even this lower level of sugar can be deadly.

A diet composed of 25% sugar is considered safe to humans by government regulatory agencies, says Potts. "About 20% of Americans are on this level of sugar intake or higher. It's equivalent to having a very excellent diet with no added sugar, but then three twelve once sodas a day. And it's actually hard to get no added sugar in the rest of your diet if you eat any processed food."

A critical element of their study was that the research team used wild mice, rather than lab mice and let them live in mouse barns so they could freely associate and compete for territory and mates. Previous studies using laboratory mice in cages did not show any effect at lower concentrations of sugar. "These are large room sized habitats where we try to emulate the mouse natural environment," says Ruff

They exposed two groups of mice to different sugar levels throughout their early youth. Following this period, both groups of mice went on the high sugar diet. The difference in diet during the first 6.5 months of life, a period of rapid growth and development, was enough to produce profound long-term effects.

Ruff says they don't know why the sugar-fed females are dying or why the males are failing to reproduce at normal levels. They only found minor differences between the test and control groups after the first 6.5 months. "We saw no difference in body weight, we saw no difference in fasting insulin or fasting glucose, or fasting triglycerides. We had a slight elevation in the sugar-fed animals in terms of total cholesterol, and female mice that were on the sugar- fed diet had slightly slower rates of glucose clearance. But of the two things we got positive findings for, the effect size was relatively minor."

Ruff says the study suggests there may be unknown mechanisms responsible for the decline in health of the sugar fed animals.

The big question remains, does this study have implications for us? Ruff says that an equivalent human study would be extremely difficult to perform, making it difficult to obtain a definitive answer. "This study is equivalent to 75 years of human life. This is lifetime exposure, lifetime performance data," says Ruff.

Nevertheless, Potts says 60-80% of things that are toxic for mice are also toxic for humans. "If a substance poisons a mouse, do you want it in your body? At least before we figure out all of the details?"

Potts and Ruff say they hope this study spurs further research that will eventually help to understand how sugar harms mice, and possibly humans.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Health Wed, 14 Aug 2013 00:00:00 -0600
Earthquake Risk in the Salt Lake Valley http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/126-earthquake-risk-in-the-salt-lake-valley http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/126-earthquake-risk-in-the-salt-lake-valley Earthquake Risk in the Salt Lake Valley

The Wasatch Front is one of the most seismically at risk areas in Utah and in the Intermountain West. Scientists are looking at thousands of years of earthquake history to learn more about the hazard we face.

The Wasatch Front is one of the most seismically at risk areas in Utah and in the Intermountain West. Scientists are looking at thousands of years of earthquake history to learn more about the hazard we face.

In Christchurch, New Zealand in February, 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck six miles from the city center. The sandy type of soil present in the area caused the ground to basically liquefy during shaking. Close to 200 hundred people died and recent estimates put the cost of rebuilding at $40 Billion.

“Liquifaction occurs during earthquake shaking,” explains Chris DuRoss, a senior geologist at the Utah Geological Survey. “Basically a soil that is strong before the earthquake, during the shaking loses its strength, and essentially behaves like a liquid. More or less like quicksand.” Buildings and other structures can be partially sucked into the earth. Once the shaking stops, the loose, sandy, saturated soil solidifies, and returns to its original state. This is one reason why the Christchurch earthquake caused so much damage.

Much of the infrastructure along the Wasatch Front is built on a similar type of soil, says DuRoss. “Just like in Christchurch we could have strong ground shaking, and we have soils that are susceptible to liquefaction.”However, he says, the type of fault along the Wasatch Front is different than in Christchurch. Ongoing studies to characterize the potential for liquefaction in Salt Lake Valley should help better define the risk.

What is not in question is that we are due for a large, magnitude 6.5 to 7.5 earthquake. “We could have an earthquake at anytime. Basically enough seismic energy has accumulated on the fault,” says DuRoss. “The fault has been sitting here without any movement for long enough, that we could have a large earthquake.”

Why are geologists convinced that we are due for a big one? DuRoss’ group looks for signs of prehistoric earthquakes that have occurred over thousands of years. They dig trenches across fault scarps, or scars in the earth, to get a better look at the disruptions caused by earthquakes. Vertical displacement of the ground surface allows them to date geologic deposits, giving them a detailed historical record of the quakes.

Unlike in California, there have not been any large earthquakes over the past 150 years since the Wasatch Front was settled. In fact, DuRoss’ group and others have found that there have only been about four earthquakes in the last 5,000 years along the Salt Lake City segment of the Wasatch Fault.

“In Salt Lake City we have earthquakes that occur about every 1,300 years over the last 5,000 years of history of the fault. We call that a return period, or recurrence time,” says DuRoss. “So, about 1,300 years between magnitude seven earthquakes and it’s been about 1,400 years since the last large earthquake.”

DuRoss says one of the concerns in Utah is that since we haven’t experienced earthquakes, building codes over the last century have not taken into account the seismic nature of the area. Most houses or buildings built before the 1970’s are at risk from shaking and liquefaction, depending on the epicenter and strength of the next big one.

“We have building sock, we call these unreinforced masonry buildings. These were built in the ‘20s, and ‘30s, and ‘40s, up to about the ‘60s. These are typically brick homes that you see all throughout, say, Sugarhouse and other areas. The bricks are just stacked up,” says DuRoss. “While they’re historic buildings and they look great, they’re not designed to withstand horizontal motions that occur due to ground shaking from a large earthquake. So they tend to have considerable damage and even failure.”

Data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggests damage in Salt Lake City from a large earthquake will run over $42 Billion and 9,000 people will suffer life threatening injuries or death. DuRoss says the best thing to do to prepare is to strap down your water heater, have an earthquake kit available with food and water, and have an earthquake plan ready with family, schools and place of work.


kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Science and Society Thu, 01 Aug 2013 00:00:00 -0600